Dr. Saturday

Underachievers: Why Notre Dame needs to stay out of the preseason polls

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

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(AJ Mast/AP)

Preseason polls rank teams based on previous results, roster and potential, but when the teams actually step on the field, many often fail to live up to expectations. Last year was no exception. Several teams missed the mark on their preseason expectations, but none more than the five you'll read about this week.

Each day this week, the Doc will uncover the top 5 most underachieving teams of 2011 and what to expect in 2012.

No. 5 Notre Dame
2011: 8-5

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Last year was supposed to be a defining season for the Fighting Irish, one that would put them back on the national map. With starting quarterback Dayne Crist and phenom receiver Michael Floyd returning, an improved running game, eight starters back on defense and a relatively light schedule, the Irish were ranked preseason 16th in the AP Poll and 18th in the USA Today Coaches Poll. A bowl was expected and there was even talk of a possible run for a BCS bid.
What Happened?
Perhaps it was the tumultuous offseason that included a Floyd suspension or the quarterbacking controversy between Crist and Tommy Rees or even the pressure of being ranked that doomed Notre Dame so early. The Irish lost their season opener to South Florida and followed that up with a loss to Michigan in the final 2 seconds of the game.

"It's devastating," Floyd said after the game. "It's hard to take this one in. It's distressing."

Added coach Brian Kelly: "We're not good enough. There's not one individual in that locker room, including all the coaches, that are good enough right now."

And that was the problem. Like it had been so many times in the past, Notre Dame was hyped because of its roster. And while its talent should have produced a 2-0 start last year, mental hurdles continued to handicap it.

Notre Dame rebounded to beat then-No. 15 Michigan State and finished the regular season on an 8-2 run with not-so-surprising losses to USC and Stanford. However, it's 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Bowl extinguished any good feelings anyone might have had about the Irish's 8-5 year.

Key Losses
South Florida 23-20; Michigan 35-31; Florida State (Champs Sports Bowl) 18-14

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What Now?
Preseason polls have to stop encouraging Notre Dame and wait for the Irish to start deserving praise. Losing in the Champs Sports Bowl to end last season — after taking a 14-0 lead early in the third quarter — was a sign that this team, even with some good wins, was not ready to turn a corner.

And the offseason has been all about going back to the drawing board.

The quarterback situation is undecided and Floyd is gone. Not to mention the defense is without star end Aaron Lynch, who left for South Florida after spring football.

A lot of Notre Dame's struggles were at the quarterback position. Rees had 14 interceptions and lost five fumbles a year ago, which is why the starting spot is still up for grabs heading into fall camp. Andrew Hendrix, who does have some experience, could be the season-opening starter, and Everett Golson turned some heads with his athleticism and accuracy during spring ball. At least whoever ends up the starting quarterback will have tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Cierre Wood to help take some of the pressure off.

Defensively, the Irish lost five of its top seven tacklers from a year ago, but linebacker Manti Te'o, the team's top tackler with 128 and five sacks, came back for his senior season, which should help, especially if some of the younger players who earned playing time a year ago develop quickly.

Unfortunately, the schedule isn't very kind. The Irish open the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland and then have to face what should be an improved Purdue team the following week. Then there's the chore of facing schedule regulars Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford and USC and the Irish have to travel to Oklahoma. Phil Steele ranked the Irish schedule the toughest in the country.

Should You Believe?
Is Notre Dame finally ready to get out of the cul-de-sac and turn a corner? Sadly, no. With a tough schedule and uncertainty at quarterback, Notre Dame probably won't be much better than it was a year ago even though it's Kelly's third year - the year when most teams show improvement (or a coach gets fired). The Irish will lose to Oklahoma and USC. Michigan and Michigan Sate are probably losses as well. Stanford is a swing game and games against BYU and Miami could create drama.

Unfortunately, some are already putting Notre Dame in their preseason polls, which will make for an even more disappointing outcome. This is not a BCS bound Irish team. A mid-tier bowl is probably the ultimate destination and another eight-win season for Kelly is not a bad thing.

But at some point, Notre Dame has to start being Notre Dame again. Kelly is known for turning teams around and while this year will not be the year Notre Dame regains its place in the national spotlight, it should lay the groundwork for a more triumphant 2013.

2012 Prediction: 9-4

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